Some eighteen years ago, Ian Buruma wrote a wise but melancholy review about Anne Frank—or rather about the merciless vendetta that had settled over the dramatized version of her diary.* In it, he suggested that no side in that controversy was exclusively right, neither those led by her father, Otto, who presented her “message” as a universal plea on behalf of all suffering humanity everywhere, nor the followers of Meyer Levin, the author of an unpublished play based on the diary, who protested that there was a conspiracy to drain it of its centrally Jewish concern. Buruma disliked the acrid, even paranoid tone of the Levin school, but he was not convinced by the “universalist” line either. He probably exasperated both camps by concluding that Anne Frank was “ambivalent” about her identity.
She wrote that Jews “can never become just Netherlanders or just English or any nation for that matter.” But she also wrote: “My first wish after the war is that I may become Dutch.” Buruma’s new book implies that ambivalence of that kind isn’t as irreconcilable as it sounds. Rather the opposite: if Anne Frank had lived, it might have been the program for a happy life.
It becomes clear in Their Promised Land that when Buruma reflected on Anne and Otto Frank, he was also reflecting on his own family. But the book cunningly takes its time to show readers why this is so. It begins with one of the most splendid and nostalgic descriptions of a traditional English Christmas that I have ever read. As a child, Buruma would cross the Channel every year with his Dutch father and his English mother to stay with her parents in a large converted vicarage in Berkshire. His grandfather, in a green tweed jacket with a pipe in his mouth, would greet them as they arrived. There would be high tea with cucumber sandwiches.
Hundreds of Christmas cards would already be decorating the hall and the staircase. The enormous Christmas tree in the large drawing room was
dripping with gold and silver baubles, festooned with streams of glittery trimmings, angels dangling from pretty little candlesticks…. This totem of pagan abundance, looking over a small mountain range of beautifully wrapped presents at its base, was not really vulgar—Granny had excellent taste. It was just very, very big.
So was “the day-long feast of Edwardian gluttony” on Christmas Day itself, beginning with stockings stuffed with smaller presents for all the guests, then tea and biscuits, then a cooked breakfast on domed silver platters, then the enormous family lunch, then opening the main presents under the tree, then music, then a walk. Buruma recalls that
everything about Christmas seemed a trifle overdone, certainly more lavish than anything we were used to…. Everything…seemed very, very English. And indeed, the superiority of Englishness, to my grandparents, was never in doubt.
“And yet the Englishness of my grandparents was not as clear-cut as it seemed.” Both were Jews, the British-born children of prosperous, upper-middle-class German-Jewish immigrants who had settled in England:
They were all German Jews. Which is to say that my grandparents, Bernard Schlesinger and Win Regensburg, were English in the way their German Jewish ancestors were German, and that was, if such a thing were possible, more so, or at least more self-consciously so, than the “natives.”
The “superiority of Englishness” meant a superior sort of Englishness: upper-class customs and clothes and accents, “public” (i.e., private) schools, Oxbridge. Buruma acutely disentangles the way in which class was a more important identifier for them—on the surface at least—than race, let alone religion. Bernard and Win never denied their Jewish background and never converted to Christianity, but neither did they practice their Judaism, hardly ever in their lives visiting a synagogue. Win in particular, whose political views grew more conservative as she grew older, took a disdainful view of poor, Yiddish-speaking Ostjuden who had fled from the Russian Empire and settled in London’s East End.
In this, she was typical of the highly educated, Germanized “Yekke” background from which both their families had emerged—much like the background of Otto Frank, in fact. Bernard, who became a successful pediatric surgeon, was not as overtly snobbish as Win, but he seems to have shared some of the same distastes. Both of them stiffened when they encountered somebody behaving in what they considered a conspicuously “Jewish” way, and they developed a curious code between them (whose origin Buruma can’t trace) that referred to Jewishness as “forty-five”—as in: “He looks distinctly forty-five.”
But the identity that troubled them most urgently was not Jewish but German. Hatred of everything and everyone German was far more intense in Britain during World War I than during World War II, and it was anti-Hunnery, not anti-Semitism, that made several members of Win’s London family change their name from Regensburg to Raeburn. Bernard and Win, who did not get married until 1925, developed a startling but apparently heartfelt loathing for Germany during the war, in which he served in the trenches as a doctor and she worked as a hospital nurse.
Buruma writes that “as long as I knew her, she always expressed a healthy British disdain for the native country of her parents.” After visits to her wealthy and intellectual German relatives in Kassel, she complained that they were “horribly brainy.” The arrival of the Third Reich confirmed all the couple’s prejudices, and at the end of World War II, as British troops liberated the camp at Bergen-Belsen, Bernard could write home about “what fiendish bastards the Bosch are…. What is one to do with a nation like that?”
They were anything but “self-hating Jews.” And yet the language they used in letters between them sometimes reads as almost anti-Semitic. “A very pretty young girl, without a trace of 45” is one instance among many; another is Win’s account of meeting a woman who showed what she considered “the typical cheek of her race and type… She looked a typical East Ender, dark & sallow, with a bright handkerchief tied round her head.” And that was written a few weeks before the war ended, when the scale and horror of the Final Solution were becoming widely known. But to repeat Buruma’s insight, those were times when acute class-consciousness was still an essential component of the “superior Englishness” that Win had internalized. Not to make snobbish personal judgments might have seemed to her to open a crack in her sometimes frail confidence in who she was.
And yet when the scale of Nazi racist persecution became clear, the Schlesingers acted with wonderful energy and solidarity. Buruma’s detective work among their letters suggests to him that the idea of rescuing Jewish children may have been prompted by one of Bernard’s many encounters with England’s polite brand of anti-Semitism. He was turned down for a job at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London on the usual opaque grounds: “It is the old, old story,” as he wrote to Win in July 1938. But this seems to have left him with the time and the motive to do something quite different. Well before the pogrom of Reichskristallnacht in November of that year, and before the famous Kindertransport trains began to bring Jewish refugee children from Germany and Austria to Great Britain, he and Win set out to organize the transfer of twelve Jewish children, almost all from Berlin.
The twelve children arrived and were taken to a hostel in North London organized by the Schlesingers, who looked after them or at least supervised their care for the next seven years, until the war was over. Buruma made contact with many of the survivors, now in their eighties, and was welcomed with tears of gratitude: they were well aware that they owed their lives to the Schlesingers and referred to them as “angels.” Portraits of Bernard and Win still hang on apartment walls in California and Tel Aviv.
“They [the children] had little or no idea why they were being singled out for persecution,” Buruma writes. “Their parents thought of themselves as normal Germans, and were proud to be so, just as Bernard and Win were proud to be British.” This is a point Buruma emphasizes constantly, and the rescue of the children allows him to repeat another, more barbed concern of his: the significance of social class for families like the Schlesingers.
While seeking permission to set up the hostel, Bernard had written to a local council in London:
For some months my wife and I have been planning to take into this country, as our guests, a small number of German refugee children…. They are to be children specially chosen from the professional classes about whom we have either personal or reliable knowledge.
So, a form of “selection.” What happened to Jewish working-class children? Buruma writes: “With all their efforts to be conventionally British, here was an affirmation of solidarity when it mattered most. But their allegiance was to class as much as to ethnicity.”
Bernard and Win acted, in effect, as foster parents, although most of the worry and responsibility fell on Win while her husband was away at the war. (Both of them luckily turned out to have retained the fluent German they had learned from their parents.) Win’s British patriotism was more extravagantly expressed, but Bernard maintained an almost Roman sense of military obligation to his country. He served as a volunteer army doctor in France, Macedonia, and Palestine in World War I; World War II took him to Norway and India. Nearly twenty years later, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Bernard in his late sixties tried once again to join the British army.
They had to pass many years of their marriage apart. The source for Buruma’s book is the mass of letters they wrote to each other, from the moment they fell in love in their late teens to within a decade of their deaths. In a barn in Sussex, their grandson Ian found
a stack of steel boxes filled with mouse droppings and hundreds of letters, the first of which was written in 1915, when Bernard was still at boarding school and Win was studying music in London. The last ones were written in the 1970s.
They began as love letters and they continued to be love letters, but
the love between Bernard and Win is not the main subject of this book…. Instead, I have selected passages that express how they saw themselves in relation to the world they lived in. What interested me were the stories they told each other and themselves about who they were.
They adored each other, felt wretched in their many separations, and always longed to be together again. Looking into a marriage as strong and intense as that is not always easy or comfortable, as their grandson may have felt when he decided to keep his focus on what the letters said about their identities in the outside world. Love doesn’t always illuminate; it can cast a sort of blinding glow in which the outlines of everything else grow fuzzy. “There is something idyllic about such rare unions, romantic and unassailable.” But when they died, the family fell apart.
A reader of this book can wonder whether two people so delighted with and fulfilled by each other had much left over for their children. These grew up talented (the filmmaker John Schlesinger was one of their sons) but not always happy. As Win wrote to Bernard in 1940:
I wish that my life could have been more balanced—that I could ever have cared for the children half as much as I care for you. But I have always been entirely wrapped up in you….
The immense generosity of spirit in Bernard and Win, the quality that Buruma calls their “common decency,” may have made it harder for them to understand failings, weaknesses, or bad behavior in their own brood. It seems that they assumed, like Anne Frank, that human beings were at heart naturally good. They often faced great evil with courage and energy, but never came close to understanding what made people depart from their own high standards. It’s difficult to be the son or daughter of parents like that.
Bernard was high-spirited, gregarious; he loved his home but it was for him a place to entertain friends. England was his—and her—safe haven (“They were not unsympathetic toward Israel, but they weren’t Zionists”). For much of World War II he served in India, impatient to get into “the real thing” in Normandy or Italy but enfolded in the decayed luxury of the British Raj in its last days. His attitudes were conventional and colonialist (“the average Indian has a child’s mentality”), but he was able to contrast the “boorishness” of white men to the politeness of the Indians who worked under them.
Win’s letters are much more revealing about underlying uncertainties. The Regensburgs were well known for lacking confidence (Win is supposed once to have been served a bowl of mayonnaise instead of custard at a dinner party, and to have eaten it rather than risk giving offense). Now she overdid things: her flaming loyalty to “England” under Nazi threat was at once passionately sincere and theatrical. Unlike the “natives” around her, there was nothing wry about her reaction as the bombs fell and the German invasion seemed imminent. She raged against the “defeatism” of what she called “foreign bohunks,” in which she included some of the Jewish refugees she had helped to rescue. “Next to you, I love England more than anything else in the world… I want you to come home soon so desperately, but England’s honor would be too high a price to pay for my personal happiness.” Dunkirk provoked this woman of German parentage to full identification: “What terrific reverses we always have in every century, & what undaunted courage and tenacity is shown by our men in every generation.”
Winston Churchill could do no wrong. “Dear, self-sacrificing Churchill globetrots to try and smooth out everybody else’s troubles,” Win wrote. His unexpected defeat, with the Labour landslide at the 1945 elections, confirmed her dislike of “leftwing extremists” and her growing mistrust of Stalin and the Soviet Union—still widely admired in Britain as the war ended.
News from inside Germany had already filtered to Britain. Win, at least, was aware of how many of her own relations had been deported and murdered. And yet this horrifying confirmation of their worst fears had little impact on the Schlesingers’ sense of affinity or loyalty. Then or later, they saw no reason to “come out as Jews,” any more than they were tempted to deny their ethnicity and pride in being Jewish. “Win’s feelings were as ambivalent as they had always been,” Buruma writes. “This was not really a question of suppression or denial. What it meant was that she remained true to her background and class.”
Germany was still a part of that background, as a sensibility rather than as a nation. As Buruma says, the difference between the story of the Schlesingers and that of their German cousins was that their own country did not turn against them. The most astonishing detail in Their Promised Land is the fact that the entire Schlesinger clan traveled to Bayreuth in the early 1950s to “celebrate the rebirth of Wagner’s Teutonic shrine.” This was in a period when much of the non-Jewish world, let alone Israel and the American diaspora, rejected Wagner’s work as a poisonous carnival of Hitlerian kitsch.
But the Schlesingers and Regensburgs and the others like them had brought with them from Germany an enduring passion for its music. Their letters are full of happy, knowledgeable references to Brahms, Bach, and Beethoven performed or heard, wherever they were. Buruma, writing of German middle-class society before Hitler, suggests that “Wagner’s music gave Jews an opportunity to feel a spiritual affinity with German culture, even reveling in their being German, without pretending to be Christian.”
Another “spiritual affinity,” but this time with England, was the enthusiasm of Bernard and Win for the English rural idyll. In a way this was odd; they both spent most of their lives in North London and only moved to their old Berkshire vicarage after World War II. But typically, they put their hearts and souls into it. Bernard in India moons over an old copy of Country Life magazine, which “wafts away these Oriental smells & gives me the feeling of cleanliness again with its pictures of sunny, bright and verdant England, smiling and friendly…undulating plough land, woods, birdlife, country lore.” Win didn’t aspire to “undulating plough land” and went in for country-lady gardening.
The exhaustion of war was at last undermining even her fighting optimism. Growing sweet peas seemed at times to make more sense than the imminent fall of the Third Reich. When “Victory in Europe” finally arrived on May 8, 1945, she wrote to Bernard in India: “I missed you too much to celebrate at all, and so I improved the shining hour by doing a bit of extra work in the garden.” She was never more exquisitely English than with those words.
“Ambivalence” about who they were gave the Schlesingers moments of unease and embarrassment. But this book demonstrates that its subtle tension also generated a warm and enormous energy, an exaggerated passion for duty, loyalty, and improvement.
After reading Their Promised Land, I found myself wondering what one of Bernard and Win’s teenage daughters—perhaps Ian Buruma’s mother—might have written if she had found herself hiding in an attic from the Nazi occupiers of Britain. That in spite of everything, people were naturally good? That Jews can never be just English? I think a young Schlesinger might have written both of those sentiments. She could have learned faith in humanity from her parents. But their example also showed that she would never be “just” English. She would always be that—and something more.